Saturday, November 16, 2013

Where Failed Management Fads Go To Die

When I was working my college summers in private industry, I was introduced to Management By Objectives. It was all the rage-- well, it was all the rage with upper management types who liked to book training sessions for the rest of the company. And it was all the rage with the consultants who made money traveling around the country consulting and seminarring and just generally doing their drive-by rearranging of other peoples' deck chairs.

I don't remember anybody liking MBO very much, and when I played catch-up with my old cronies at the company, I heard that MBO was on its way out. Not only were people tired of it, but it didn't work very well.

Not too long after that, as a college grad with his own teaching certificate, I was introduced to the hot new thing in education-- Teaching By Objectives. I was dumbfounded. It was as if someone had simply taken all the old MBO materials and gone through pasting "teaching" in to cover up every "management."

How could it be? People in industry were already abandoning MBO-- even if you thought schools should or could be run with corporate techniques, why would you pick one that was being dumped as ineffective?

Well, I was young, and new, and just learning one of those Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

Public education is the elephant's graveyard of bad management techniques.

Maybe it's that some education leaders have an inferiority complex that leads them to believe that business people know something we don't. Maybe it's just that consultants have to eat, too, and once the private sector won't hire you anymore, where are you going to turn. All I know is that I noticed education was always climbing on the bus just as the private sector was climbing off.

Nothing has changed under the current reform wave. Ten years ago, Jack Welch was all the rage with his bell curve management technique-- rate all your employees and fire the bottom ten percent. But by the end of the two thousand oughts, folks were noticing that besides being hardhearted, arbitrary and just plain mean, the Welch strategy didn't actually work.

And yet in the time since the private sector fell out of love with Jack Welch, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to score schools and label the bottom 15% as "failing" and thereby targeted for various remediation, vouchering, and take-over. Essentially PA decided to Welch its schools.

Now Microsoft has forsaken stack ranking. They've finally noticed that it creates a toxic atmosphere, kills collaboration, and is just generally bad for the company's health.

Meanwhile, in the elephant's graveyard, what is being pushed? The Danielson model for teacher evaluation, in which the implicit assumption is that a teaching staff should plot out on a bell curve. "Nobody," we are told over and over and over in PA, "will live at the top level." Most of us will live in the unexceptional middle. You know. Like a bell curve.

And every merit pay variation to come down the pike is built on stacking-- if you want that bonus (or, under some systems, not to be fired) you are going to have to beat out your colleagues across the hall. Fellow teacher needs a little help? Just remember, they can't do better without taking away from your success. Best to keep those lesson plan ideas and teacher-made materials under lock and key.

Public education is where failed management techniques go to die. Whenever someone wants to tout an idea as super-dee-duper because it's all the rage in the private sector, remember that the question to answer is, "And how is that working for them?" And by "working," we mean "creating a better product" and not "hornswaggling a bunch of investors into boosting the stock prices."

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